The problem

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THE problem can be stated in a few words: fear, minorities, different people coming to live together. It’s a problem which calls us to work at a solution, which basically means winning the challenge of cultural pluralism.

The public agenda in most European countries is today increasingly dominated by a relatively new concern: the growing tension arising from differences between cultures, religious traditions and conflicting identities that happens in an age of slowdown in the economy and of massive immigration. The consequence is that many politicians and voters are pushed into supporting the ideas of extremism, fanaticism and xenophobia.

Tensions over all that is seen as different is very intense and has a negative effect not only on relations between countries, but also within democracies all over the world. In the United States, we see extremist forces organize anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant campaigns, as happened with the so-called ‘ground zero mosque’ case. In European countries too, including those with long-settled immigrant populations, anti-immigrant mobilization is steadily assuming a more radical form.

Those who have succeeded in spreading hysteria (about foreigners, the Islamic veil, the threat of terrorism) and have ridden the current xenophobia wave are becoming increasingly powerful. The electoral signals in Europe are clear, be it the recent success of Geert Wilders’ PVV in Holland and Barbara Rosenkranz’s FPÖ in Austria (the pro-Nazi candidate who won 15.6% of the votes in the last presidential elections), or the right-wing Le Pen’s Front National, once again winning above 10% of the seats. But the hostility to difference is no longer an exclusive domain of the extreme right; it has now entered the political mainstream. The prime ministers of Britain and Germany (it is pointless to mention the Italian one, given his close connection with the xenophobic party, Lega Nord) solemnly announced the need to rethink the desirability of a multicultural policy, a strange critique coming as it does from leaders in Europe.

In North America, debates on the notion of pluralism and a scrupulous correctness towards minorities have deeper roots and are regularly featured in the media. In the European context, however, such a debate and the frequent rejection of multiculturalism are somewhat at odds, as a real multicultural experience, commonplace in the US and Canada, is hard to come by. Many conservative columnists mindlessly portray ‘multiculturalism’ as a frightening ghost in several European countries. If what they have in mind are the failures represented by conflict among ethnic and religious minorities, or the persistence of separate and parallel societies, out of control and at risk of becoming a source of hate, anarchy and violence, it would be better to define them, not as ‘multicultural’ situations, but rather ‘collections of monoculturalisms’, as suggested by Amartya Sen.

The challenge posed by pluralism, not only in a political sense (that is the old issue of a liberal culture) but in a cultural sense (differences in roots, colour, ethnicity, language, religion) is today a significant one for all democracies in the world, especially those where migration flows have been significant, resulting in a cultural diversification of society. That’s why a dialogue between Europe and India about the challenge of pluralism and the treatment of minorities is of great interest for both sides.

In this dialogue there is a need to emphasize the shared elements, different experiences, possible reciprocal lessons on how democracy manages social and political problems arising from differences. More specifically, we need to pay particular attention to the problem of Muslims minorities, representing the greatest challenge for integration in present day Europe, on one side, and the biggest and the most rooted in Indian history, on the other.

Democracy can prosper only if the elites in power develop a responsible vision – open, plural and global – and understand that the interdependency of the world’s problems does not simply permit a local perspective.

The subject of Islamic minorities is today of particular importance. In India it has always been important; in Europe too, though an ancient concern, it has recently and problematically acquired an explosive dimension with the immigration of heterogeneous peoples coming from North Africa and Eastern Europe, from the Middle East and Asia.

Generally speaking, as the presence of religion in the public sphere becomes more marked and is nourished by conflictual debates, the conventional understanding of European secularism has increasingly come under scrutiny. In addition to the traditional response of an ‘exclusive laicity’, which requires religion to remain confined to the private sphere, another possible response, also liberal and secular, but providing a more hospitable space for religion in public life is being seriously debated, a position characterized by Habermas as ‘post-secular’.

The affinity with the situation in India is significant, seeing that in India too there is a vigorous debate on a ‘negative’ and a ‘positive’ notion of secularism (of what we call in some other languages ‘laicism’, ‘laicité’).

It is thus of great interest for Europeans to address political schools of thought, philosophers, political theorists, Indian intellectuals from all backgrounds – Hindu, Islamic, religious or non-religious, believers and non-believers – to compare our situations and contribute to the current debate in the world on relations between Islam, democracy, liberal principles and human rights.

The Association Reset – Dialogues on Civilizations that is promoting this common reflection has opened a permanent debating centre in Istanbul with a conference and seminars every year, involving political leaders, researchers and students from all over the world. Of particular interest is the important evolution underway in Turkey, not only because of the intrinsic worth of the model, but also because it is linked to procedures for joining the European Union and to its growing political influence on the Arab countries.

This issue of Seminar hopes to initiate a debate on the relationship between cultural identity and economic and social problems, analyzing in-depth the relationship between economic progress and social inequality on the one hand, and tradition, culture and religion on the other, as well as the situation experienced by women related to all these factors.



* This issue of Seminar carries reflections and conversations made possible by the initiative of the Association Reset – Dialogues on Civilizations, a non-profit organization based in Italy, which organized a conference in Delhi, 18-20 October 2010, on Cultural and Religious Pluralism: the Muslim Minority in the Indian Democracy – an East-West Comparison. The conference was organized in partnership with Seminar magazine, India Habitat Centre and Jamia Millia Islamia.

Participants at the conference included Imtiaz Ahmad (former Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi), Anwar Alam (Director, Centre for West Asian Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi), Stefano Allievi (Professor, University of Padova, Italy), Benjamin Barber (Distinguished Senior Fellow, Dēmos and President, CivWorld, New York), Rajeev Bhargava (Director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi), Giancarlo Bosetti (Director, Reset), Shoma Chaudhury (Managing Editor, Tehelka, Delhi), Nina zu Fürstenberg (Director, ResetDoc), Nilüfer Göle (Professor of Sociology at the Centre d’Analyse et d’Intervention Sociologiques, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris), Mariella Gramaglia (former Secretary for Equal Opportunities of the Rome Council), Dipankar Gupta (Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi), Ruchira Gupta (President, Apne Aap Women Worldwide), Ramin Jahanbegloo (Professor, Centre for Ethics, University of Toronto), Najeeb Jung (Vice Chancellor, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi), Madhu Kishwar (Senior Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Founder of Manushi Sangathan), Jörg Lau (writer and journalist, Die Zeit), Raj Liberhan (Director, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi), Giovanna Melandri (former Minister of Culture of Italy, MP for the Democratic Party), Pankaj Pachauri (NDTV, Delhi), Mujibur Rehman (Faculty at the Centre for Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi), Asaf Savas Akat (economist, Bilgi University, Istanbul), Malvika Singh (Publisher, Seminar, Delhi), Harsh Sethi (Consulting Editor, Seminar, Delhi), Georg Heinreich Thyssen-Bornemisza (President of ResetDoc), Roberto Toscano (Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC, and former Italian Ambassador in India).